The Only Medical School Books You Will Ever Need for Medical School Success

In the summer before  your first year of medical school, your school will send out a list of medical school books that are required or recommended for your courses. Most medical students are super prepared. So they will spend a few thousand dollars to buy all the books on the list.

But let me give you an advice: Don’t bother with the list!


Most of the recommended medical school books are huge textbooks that you will not be able to finish, even if medical school was extended to six years. Remember, medical school is about drinking a vast amount of information efficiently. You can’t do that with a textbook. Textbooks are dry. Textbooks are big. Textbooks are slow. And textbooks are expensive. If you do need them, you can always borrow them from your school library.

medical school books - textbooks suck

Textbooks are not your friends.

If you refer back to my studying in medical school section, you can find that I did not purchase many books and was still able to do well (better than average) in my classes. My personal motto is: less is better. I wanted to purchase as few books as possible and carry around as little weight as possible in school. Therefore, I am going to provide you a list of books that I thought was essential for doing well.

In a nutshell, all the books listed here are those you should own. Throughout your years in medical school, you will frequently refer back to them. All the books I recommend are what I have personally used to get through all 4 years of medical school and to pass all parts of COMLEX (the osteopathic licensing exam) on my first try. I guarantee that if you know these books like the back of your hands, you will graduate as a fine, young doctor — brimming with medical knowledge. 

(You should also talk to upperclassmen and see what worked for them. I did so and it was helpful.)

Alright, so let’s get started …

Medical School Books for First and Second Year

I recommend these book for both allopathic (MD) or osteopathic (DO) medical students. In the first and second year, you should buy a bit more books than the third and fourth year. You will need to build a strong foundation in the basic medical sciences before you can move on to the clinical aspects of medicine. Therefore, invest a bit more money to make sure your foundation is strong enough. In addition, you’ll need to know the basics well for the first board exam. (The first board exam will play an extremely important role when determining which specialty and which residency program you will match into.)

Atlas of Human Anatomy by Frank H. Netter, MD

Obviously, this book is for anatomy. And anatomy is a very, very visual course. This famous book, also known as Netter, will help you learn your anatomy.

My course professor’s slides were actually pretty good. It already had lots of pictures in there. So in the beginning of the semester, I did not use Netter for anatomy and only used the slides provided by my professor. And I did below average on the practicals (which consisted of identifying structures on cadavers). Towards the end of the course, for the last two modules, I really began to use Netter and began to lead my group in dissecting. As a result, I honored those sections and performed higher than average. And this is coming from a guy whose first exposure to anatomy was in medical school.

Pathoma by Husain A. Sattar, MD


Click on the book for more information.

From what I read, this guy is a pretty popular teacher. And I can see why. His teaching is concise and clear.

During the first week of my pathology class, I vowed not to read Robbins Pathology, which is a 1,464-paged monster. As I say over and over again, it is about being efficient. So some people in my class opted to use Dr. Goljan’s Rapid Review for Pathology. I took at look at it. It was good, but still too much at 656 pages. So I decided not to read books and, instead, planned to attend lecture using the professor’s slides as my main source. I received my first exam back and did less than average. That was totally unacceptable.

I stressed out a bit and didn’t know what to do. And one day, I received an e-mail telling me about Pathoma. It was created as a review for Step 1 board exam. By this time, I was a bit frantic, I was searching for something — anything to help me. I read the reviews and lots of people vouched for it. Although it is only about 200 pages of outlines, it does come with lectures (audio and visual) so you can really know your stuff. And if you have not guessed by now, I’m totally an outlines type of person because they’re efficient. And the whole package (consisting of a book with online lectures) was less than $100.

I bought it and have not been disappointed with it. My grades afterwards have been higher than average. It is only January 2012 as I write this, still 5 months before my COMLEX exam and I am already doing about average on my Kaplan USMLE practice exams. This includes testing myself on subjects I have not yet learned such as hematology and obstetrics. Physiology and pathology (and funnily, biostatistics which I never took) are my best subjects.

Yes, Pathoma really does work, unlike most medical school books.

First Aid for the USMLE Step 1

Everyone and everyone’s mothers recommend this book. Everyone and everyone’s mothers use this book. And they are right to do so. First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 is a good, succinct summary of everything you should have learned in the first two years. And hence, it covers almost everything that will be tested for the first board exam (USMLE or COMLEX) — in outline format.

Because it is in outline format, unless you are really good at reading outlines and are willing to look up extra information to clarify a topic, this should not be your main resource for learning the materials. Instead, you will use it to review the materials you have already learned.

Therefore, I would not get this book until the second year, when you start preparing for USMLE or COMLEX. If you get it in the first year, you may not understand the materials yet. Towards the second year, you should use this book as you go through your classes. The earlier you start with this in the second year, the less stressful you will be when you prepare for the first board exam.

Optional, but Recommended Books

Success in Medical School: Book Review – Read my review of Success in Medical School: Insider Advice for the Preclinical Years to find out if and how the book will guide you to become successful for the first two years of medical school.

The books mentioned above are pretty much all you need as a medical student for your first two years of medical school. However, if you are in an osteopathic (DO) school, keep reading further.

Medical School Books for First and Second Year (Osteopathic Medical Students)

As an osteopathic student, you have another class that is very visual – Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT). In fact, some people in my class (including myself) consider OMT to be anatomy #2. So it makes sense that the books you will need cover anatomy and OMT.

Thieme Atlas of Anatomy – General Anatomy and Musculoskeletal System

This is the Netter for OMT, which is very big on insertions and origins. The book is really good for helping you visualize each individual muscle. Therefore, you can better understand how the counterstrain or muscle energy is affecting a particular muscle.

The main reason I used this book is to memorize the muscle origins, insertions, actions, and innervations, which are all tested on my examinations. During my first year, I did not bother with Thieme and I did below average. Then during my second year, by spending some time with Thieme, I did WAY above average.

The Pocket Manual of OMT

There are a lot of OMT techniques and I simply cannot remember them all. The main use for this book is to quickly jolt your memory on the different type of treatments. It is a small book so it should fit in the white coat’s pocket. (Hence, it is called, “Pocket Manual.”) I do make good use out of the book before my practical examinations. And I expect to whip this book out of my pocket more often as a third year on clinical rotations. Snap!

OMT Review by Robert G. Savarese, DO

There is not too much to say about this book except that almost all students use this to prepare for the OMT section of COMLEX. This is the go-to book when it comes to preparing for the osteopathic section of the boards. It is that good.

If you could only pick one book from the three osteopathic books, get this book.

OMT Review is easy to read. Most important of all, it comes with practice questions and answers with explanations. I used it throughout the second year and it was very helpful. I should have used it throughout the first year as well. Unlike First Aid (mentioned above), this book is not in outline forms and explains the subject clearly.

Medical School Books for Third and Fourth Year

Again, I recommend these book for both allopathic (MD) or osteopathic (DO) medical students. By your third and fourth year, you should have a strong grasp on the basics. It is time to focus on the clinical aspect of medicine. The good news is that you will need a lot less books than the previous two years. The following books will prepare you for residency and will enable you to pass Step 2 and Step 3 of the boards.

The Successful Match: 200 Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match

If you are a medical student, get this book now! Click on the following link to find out why The Successful Match: 200 Rules to Succeed in the Residency Match is a required book. It will bring you to a detailed review.

Master the Boards USMLE Step 2 CK by Conrad Fischer, MD

When it comes to preparing for Step 2 and Step 3, First Aid is no longer the go-to source. It has been replaced by Master the Boards (or MTB for short), written by Dr. Fischer. He teaches for Kaplan and from what I have heard, students just love this guy.

Unlike First Aid, MTB is not in outline format. It is in paragraph form. So if you hate reading outlines, you can cheer.

The book is broken down by specialty (such as cardiology, gastroenterology, etc.) You learn about a multitude of diseases. You will about learn their symptoms, how to diagnose, and how to treat — pretty much whatever you need for Step 2 and Step 3. You will also learn about guidelines for screening, imaging, and other fringe topics that you will encounter in the boards. Many students, including myself, consider MTB to be the ultimate review book for clinical medicine.

However, Master the Boards USMLE Step 2 CK is not complete by itself. It is missing some topics, which should have been present in a comprehensive review book. For example, it lacks childhood development milestones. That is why you must pair it with …

Master the Boards USMLE Step 3 by Conrad Fischer, MD

It makes sense that MTB 2 CK does not contain everything, or else why would you need to buy MTB 3. Whatever the previous book lacked, you can find it in this book. And if a topic is not in either MTB 2 CK or MTB 3, then it really is not that important.

The way the book is structured is very, very similar to its predecessor.

I used Master the Boards USMLE Step 2 CK as my primary source for clinical medicine. And if information is lacking, I will turn to Master the Boards USMLE Step 3. I will say that 80% of MTB 3 is a repeat of MTB 2 CK. You mainly buy this book for the 20% that is new information.

Rapid Interpretation of EKG’s by Dale Dubin, MD

I was debating if this book should be optional or required. It could be optional because, true to its title, it is a book about EKG’s. Not all doctors will need to understand EKG’s, such as obstetricians, dermatologists, radiologists, and whatnot. With that being said, if any medical book could be considered a classic … This. Is. It.

This book is sooooooo good at teaching you about EKG’s. Not only is it useful for medical students, it is useful and loved by nursing students, physician assistant students, and everyone else in the medical field. It would be kind of embarrassing as a doctor if nurses and physician assistants know more about EKG’s than you. Therefore, I strongly feel that this book should be required for all medical students. And if you really understand EKG’s, you’ll score some easy points on the boards.

Why is this book so good? Because it is very easy to read. Each page consists of a large photo, a paragraph to explain the photo, and some fill-in-the-blanks sentences (to help you remember what you have read). Although the book presents information simply, the things you will learn are quite advanced. You will understand why EKG works the way it does, why a heart condition shows up a certain way on the EKG, and how to spot electrolyte imbalances.

Yes, Dale Dubin, MD does have a sordid history. But that does not take away his genius. If all medical books were written like this, an average person with an average IQ would have a strong knowledge of medicine.

Optional, but Recommended Books

Success on the Wards: Book Review – Read my review of Success on the Wards: 250 Rules for Clerkship Success to find out if and how the book will guide you to become the best medical student for the clinical years.

Clinician’s Guide to Laboratory Medicine: Book Review
– Find out why Clinician’s Guide to Laboratory Medicine is a book I highly recommend for students in rotations. See how it can help you become good … no … rather, an expert in interpreting any type of lab values.

Medical Books for All 4 Years Should Cost You Less Than $1,000

There you have it. These are the medical books I have personally used and personally own. In total, you should not have to spend too much money on books. I added up the cost of all the books listed in this article (both required and optional), based on Amazon’s price. For all 4 years, the total amount for books is: $513.03. That’s a far cry from my measly budget of $1,000.

It is expensive to attend medical school. Save some money when you can. If you want to save even more money, you could get the older editions, especially for Netters and Thieme. Anatomy should not change much from one year to the next.

I guarantee that with these books, and with a good study system, you will graduate as a fine, young doctor — brimming with medical knowledge.


  1. Dontreil Jackson says:

    Are these good books that will also help me expand as a Pediatrician

    • Alex Ding says:

      Hey Dontreil,

      These books will teach you the basics (i.e. to get through medical school and residency) on passing the licensing exams. But practicing doctors usually get more advanced resources, such as UptoDate, DynaMed, or Medscape (which is free).

  2. Robson C.Malichi says:

    Great and simplified books you have mentioned above.But what books do you recommend in Pharmacology,microbiology,neurophysiology and anatomy ?

  3. Delish Dida says:

    I wanted to know what books did you use for physiology…….hope to hear from you soon.

  4. Which books do you recommend for pre med?

    • Alex Ding says:

      None. Enjoy college life.

    • Jaime Arredondo says:

      Everything you can get your hands on, if you have the time. Basically two really good ones are Guyton and Hall medical physiology and Robbins Basic Pathology. Another two are Rubin’s pathology and Junquerias basic histology, however, study for the MCAT, shadow doctors and maintain a high GPA and more importantly enjoy college! Wait for your training, but then again, work hard and play hard.

  5. Great post! I really enjoyed it. I hope it will be a better experience than my undergrad years..

  6. Jaime Arredondo says:

    In undergrad at my school for BMED maj. we use Robbins pathology the basic pathology version and Langman’s embryology and of course Netter’s and Clinically oriented anatomy. Therefore, I am familiar with first year Meds school books. Other topics are Guyton and Hall medical physiology, Murray medical microbiology, and understanding pathophysiology and immuobiology; among others… Thanks for the advice I have and will enjoy undergrad, but I read these for fun they are superb books. Thanks again for the advice!

  7. Hannah Miller says:

    Does it matter which edition of Netter’s Anatomy you use?

  8. Brittany B. says:

    I’m about to graduate with my BS in Health. I want to be prepared for medical school. How well do believe these books will work for 2016-2017 students?

  9. I was wondering if you could tell me good books on the following subjects; Pharmacology, Genetics, Parasitology, and Immunology. Please.

  10. Hey,
    I’m taking a gap year and I want to make sure I’m well prepared. Is there anything specific you’d recommend?
    Awesome post btw!

  11. Hey!
    I was wondering, what about biochemistry? Im studying in Mexico City and its all a bit different. I just started first semester (we enter med school straight after high school) and for my medical subjects I have Biochemistry, Cellular Biology and Anatomy, so what books would you recommend?
    Thank you!

  12. okochi kenneth okechukwu says:

    am about securing admission into iniversity,what if my lecturer sticks on a particular text book,instead of the one u recomended,what should we do then?

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